Sunday, August 31, 2014

Already Right Here

"The Cove"
-Outside the Desert Retreat House-

The area where we live out here in the desert is known as "the cove." Set right up against the Santa Rosa mountains, the cove is replete with scenic hiking trails that weave through the desert floor going high up into the mountains. These trails are very popular among tourists who hike this region to take in the experience of sage brush and cacti, glorious wildflowers in the spring, the sounds of exotic desert birds, roadrunners dashing in and out, a herd of bighorn sheep sometimes standing on the path,  - and always the great silence along the way.

I count myself to be so incredibly blessed to be able to walk outside our front door and be standing right in the midst of it all.

I recall one day as my wife and I were walking with our dogs along one of the nearby trails and we passed by two hikers, walking sticks in hand, backpacks and water bottles, diligently studying their maps and looking very confused.  They stopped us and said, "We are looking for a place called "the cove." We hear it has some wonderful hiking trails. Have you ever heard of it, and do you know how to get there?"  "This is the cove" I responded, "you are already on one of the trails." 

I recall one of the hikers somewhat "sheepishly" looking up from his maps and saying, "Yeah, I guess this is pretty nice isn't it?" 

The American Buddhist Lama Surya Das once said:

Whatever we are looking for is always right here.
We are usually elsewhere - that's the problem. 

As I sit in my desert garden on this Sunday morning, I think of all the millions of people walking on all sorts of spiritual pathways, looking for "Truth," for "deeper peace" in life.  Some go to a church or to a mosque or a temple,  they may read books and listen to sermons and lectures or seek out gurus, sages and teachers - all looking for some solution to the Great Riddle, the Mystery of Life.

But as I see it you can't ever arrive at the Truth by thinking about what is true.  In some ways you can't even find the truth but by searching for it. A Mystery can't be solved, nor can it be explained. It can only be experienced. The Truth is already right here, but "we are usually elsewhere, and that's the problem."

Throughout his life, Siddhartha Gautama was on a path of frantically searching for the meaning of life, searching everywhere for the Truth, but not finding the way. Then he sat under a Bodhi tree for 40 days and said, "I'm here and I'm not going to move from here until I find what I'm looking for. So he cleared his mind of thoughts and opened his heart, awake and available in the present moment and the Truth came to him.  He became the enlightened Buddha. He experienced the Great Mystery that he was not a separated individual, that he belonged to everything and everyone, all belonging to one another.  What he was looking for was already here but he could never experience it before because he was trying to solve the mystery. 

Jesus also went out into a desert and like the Buddha he waited and watched in the moment for  40 days and 40 nights. He cleared his mind and opened his heart and the Truth came to him. Like the Buddha, Jesus experienced everything and everyone that is, or ever was, or ever will be,  all belonging together - all the many in the ONE, and Jesus called this experience, "The Kingdom of God." 

Later when he preaches to his disciples about the"Kingdom of God" and they ask him how to find this kingdom and when it will come? Jesus tells them, "It's already right here, now, within you." He tells them to get their noses out of the maps because they are already walking on the beautiful trail.

Whatever we are looking for is already right here.
We are usually elsewhere - that's the problem.  

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Power of Words

"Beauty or Beast?"

Yesterday I came across a fascinating article in the magazine Parabola about the power of "words" in the Hebrew tradition:

The positive potential of speech is revealed in Jewish thought in the most dramatic way. In the Hebrew scripture, the very creation of the world and everything in it was accomplished by the use of words alone. - And God said, 'let there be light' and there was light.

This "creation of the world" story on the Hebrew scripture does far more than explain how a heavenly being magically created the universe; it is a story that reflects a deep wisdom held by the ancient  Hebrew people who understood the power of words - a word can create and a word can destroy. 

One Hebrew proverb states: 

Death and life are in the power of the tongue.
(Proverbs 18:21)

One other proverb:

He who guards his mouth preserves his life.
(Proverbs 13:3)

I find this ancient wisdom about language so interesting because it pretty much reflects much of the contemporary "postmodern" understanding of how, rather than referring to reality, the words we use create our realities. 

I've been looking at the cactus in my garden this morning. Cacti are interesting because they are pretty ugly and if you brush up next to them your body will be pierced with a bunch of nasty thorny spikes that are very hard to remove. At the same time, cacti flowers are exceptionally beautiful and even exotic. If I call the cactus "beautiful," it's like saying, "let it be beautiful." and it becomes beautiful.  If I call it "nasty or a horrible," it becomes ugly. The words create the reality. 

If we say someone is "beautiful," or "elegant" or "sophisticated," that's what they become.  If we say they are "dumb" or call them a "thug," they become that. Words have power to create and words have power to destroy. "Death and life are in the power of the tongue."

The desert where I live is a quiet and even silent place. They say that "desert people" don't 'use a whole lot of words, and I think that's probably true. When I think of my life nowadays and compare it to my earlier years, I use far less words in my everyday life.  Maybe that's why I have come to a much deeper appreciation of the words I use.  Since I use them more sparingly, I use them more carefully. 

Words have great power, and words create realty. Will I create a better and more beautiful world by the words I speak or write, or will I pollute, destroy and tear apart the world by the words I use?

The sentiments of a Hebrew psalm are my mantra for this day:

Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth,
Keep watch over the door of my lips.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Discipline of Stopping

-in my meditation garden-

When our "now-adult" boys were small children we went on a family summer vacation to Disney's Epcot Center in Orlando Florida. There we were treated to a glimpse into all the exciting things the future would bring to us - all the wonderful new "time-saving" inventions for the days ahead.

We learned of something called a "microwave oven" that would cook our food in 2 to 5 minutes- how could that be possible? We saw models of a computer small enough to actually place on a desk in your own homes and we were amazed to discover that from this device you could plug into the whole world - incredible. 

The computer would serve as a home library, a research center and a bookstore. In fact you could do all your shopping by just sitting at your desk, saving all the time it takes going out to a store. The computer would also be your pharmacy where you could order all your prescriptions, and by simply pressing a few keys you could order up your evening meal to be delivered from a local restaurant. We were also stunned to learn that, in the future, you could even send and receive mail from your home computer, and on top of all that this desktop device would someday be shrunk down to the size of a hand-held phone that you could carry around with you wherever you went - wow, imagine all the time this would save! 

I was so amazed at the wonders the future might hold for us. I even remember thinking, "What will people do with all the leisure time in the days ahead?" - probably a lot more trips to Disneyland. 

Our oldest son, now all grown-up and married is visiting us for a few days. Yesterday I observed him as he spent a good part of the day working remotely from his "laptop."  It was such a whirlwind of activity - three online conference calls, endless text messages, his cell phone buzzing ceaselessly. As I watched this dizzying flurry of activity, I remembered that day when he was a little boy as we glimpsed into our future at the Epcot Center. I thought our brave new world of technological sophistication was supposed to win us all this extra leisure time - guess not.

Lots of people today lead life in the fast-lane. Our technologies have turned everyday living into an endless rush of non-stop activity. We can bring our work home and answer messages while lying on a beach, supposedly on vacation. Even leisurely meals become occasions for pecking at cell phones, browsing the web, reading mail, looking at texts, returning calls, and of course "checking in" with Facebook. 

As I see it this constant frenzy and oppressive rattle of activity is depleting - the source of so much underlying stress. It is, in fact, a spiritual problem, an impediment to finding deeper peace. 

Buddhist teacher and monk, Thich Nhat Hanh offers this advice:

If you are like most of us, since you were born, you've been running, tense, carried away, the mind always pre-occupied by so many things.

So first of all, you need to train yourself to stop -- stop running after all these things. Even if you don't have irritation, anger, fear or despair you are still running with this or that project, or this or that line of thinking, and you're not at peace. So even (or especially) at those times when you have no problems at all, train yourself to stop, to be 'here,' to come back to the wonders of the present moment.

Americans celebrate the unofficial end of summer on this Labor Day holiday weekend - a great time to engage in the "discipline of stopping." Who knows, maybe if we unplugged for a day, disabled the email, shut off the cell phones, logged out of the computers, we may actually save ourselves some time. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A User's Manual for Everyday Life

"A Clear Path"
-Outside the Desert Retreat House-

In a fascinating NPR interview yesterday, Imam Sohaib Sultan, was asked about the horrendous atrocities being committed in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic fundamentalist group known as ISIS as they wreak havoc on that region  - waging war even against fellow Muslims, demanding that non-Muslims convert, executing Christians, beheading journalists.

In yesterday's interview, Imam Sultan, an Islamic scholar, a professor, and the Muslim Chaplain at Princeton University, argued that these "Islamic Fundamentalists" are essentially not Muslims, suggesting that "perhaps they should read the Koran."  

The Imam went on to describe the Koran as a Muslim "user's manual for everyday living" - a clear path that guides almost all aspects of life for faithful Muslim believers. He suggested that the path spelled out in the Koran is abhorrent to what these so called "Islamists" are now doing in the Middle East. 

Sohaib Sultan has written a paraphrased translation of this Muslim sacred scripture. He calls it, The Koran for Dummies. He explained that he wrote this to make the teaching of the Koran more accessible for non-Muslims but has since discovered that many Muslims have bought the book in order to have their own tradition more clearly explained to them.

Considering the fact that, as an American and a Christian, when it comes to the Koran I am pretty much a "Dummy," I went ahead and downloaded this book yesterday, and I found it to be very insightful and extremely helpful in understanding what Muslim scripture actually does teach. 

Some of the passages that I found exceptionally striking:

- At the time of birth the spirit of God blows into each and every soul. Each and every human being has a share.

- Mistreatment of the poor, orphans, widows and those who are oppressed in society is strictly forbidden.

- The diversity of the people of the world is a sign of God's beautiful design on earth. Humanity comes to know and learn from one another through the differences among nations and tribes. All human beings are equal before God.

-No one is to oppress others or spread fear and devastation on this earth

-God forgives those who forgive others.

-Non-Muslim citizens are to be afforded the same rights as Muslims, namely the sanctity of life, honor and property, and non-Muslims must never, under any circumstances be forced to convert to Islam. 

After reading the teaching of the Koran yesterday, I thought  to myself, "this is pretty much what Jesus taught" - respecting the dignity of every human being, the importance of diversity and the centrality of forgiveness, caring for those who are living at the margins of life. This Muslim manual for everyday living is also my path and it is essentially the path of all major religions in the world.

The thing is, you have to actually read the scriptures in order to understand the teachings.   

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Dare to be Ordinary

"Just Another Day"
-Outside the Desert Retreat House-

Throughout this week, college and university students on campuses all across America will be gathering together for assemblies and colloquia to listen to "pep" talks designed to help motivate the students as they begin a new academic year.  

Over my career I've attended many such gatherings to help "jump start" the new year. They usually follow a pretty routine pattern,  as various and sundry speakers stand behind a podium, wave their arms and enthusiastically urge their students, "Dare to be different. Dive headlong into your studies and find new ways to stand up and be counted." 

The hope is that their young charges will be so fired up at the prospects of an upcoming academic year that they will rush home, crack open the books and devote themselves to their education, dreaming about future careers that might lead to fame and perhaps fortune. 

I used to think that this call to "dare to be different" was a noble if not somewhat idealistic sentiment. I have come to believe that telling people to "stand up and be counted" may not be at all that helpful at all, in fact it may even be harmful. 

Back in the ninth century, Chinese Zen Master Linji also gave advice to students in his charge, only instead of urging them to stand out from the crowd and to dare to be different, Master Linji advised:

Be Ordinary!
Just put on your robes, eat your food, and pass the time.

Now at  first blush this injunction may sound like a call to complacency and indifference, an excuse for being lazy. However, when you scrape beneath the surface of this wisdom, the opposite is true.

The Buddhist magazine, Shambhala Sun, recently featured a very insightful article about what it means to "be ordinary" and why "ordinariness" is indeed a goal of the spiritual life and a necessary ingredient in the pursuit of a more meaningful life:

Being ordinary means giving up any hope that we might be the center of any universe. It means we don't have any coattails for others to grasp, no bragging rights to offer up, no exciting news about our great successes to be posted on a Facebook page.

It turns out that, when we honestly dare to be ordinary, the wisdom of the universe opens up to us. We get to watch for what each day is telling us and asking of us, heading off to work or school, cooking a meal, maybe staying in bed all day to give a cold a chance to move on. We notice more -- a whole world of miracles that unfolds and unfolds without end.  Anxiety lessens, gratitude expands, creativity grows, joy happens and we feel free. We become available.

This all makes such great sense to me. 

So many people today anxiously live their lives in order to be acknowledged and recognized for their great successes -to be successful is to stand out, to be different, extraordinary, somehow better than others.  Ordinary everyday life is seen as boring and the common tasks of everyday living are dismissed as menial. 

But ordinary life is the place where miracles are indeed always unfolding in every moment of every day.  When we spend our days striving to stand up and be counted, to stand apart and be different, making our self as the "center of the universe," we miss all the miracles. 

If I were ever asked to give a speech to an assembly of students beginning a new academic year, the best advice i could give them would be, "dare to be ordinary." In fact this is the best life advice any of us ever need to hear,

Dare to be ordinary! 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Don't Fret

-in my meditation garden-

The other day I got an email from a friend of mine thanking me for some advice I had given about how silly and useless it is to "fret."  It was a very timely email because I was right in the middle of doing some pretty serious fretting myself, and I thought it might be a good idea to take my own advice,

Some might say that fretting is just another word for worrying,  but I actually think "fretting" is a more expressive word. The dictionary definition of the verb "to fret" is "to devour, to eat away, to gnaw at." When I get to worrying, this is exactly what happens to me -- my worrying eats away at me, it gnaws at my body as well as my spirit.  When I worry about things, my stomach churns, blood pressure rises, my thinking gets cloudy - worry "eats away" at me. 

When I got that email from my friend the other day I was "fretting."  All the outside lights and garden lights on the side of my house had mysteriously gone out. I wasn't sure if a circuit had blown or if there was a power surge. Who knows, maybe there was some major electrical problem? So I started fretting over it - turning over all the possibilities in my mind, "fretting" over how much it might cost to fix, could it even be repaired?

I came across this little Buddhist proverb: 

If you have a problem that can be fixed, then there is no use in worrying.
If you have a problem that cannot be fixed, then there is no use in worrying.

I have substituted the word "fretting" for "worrying" when I read this wise old saying.

There are plenty of problems and concerns in everyday living. We live in a world of violence and terrorism and so we might fret over the possibility of our airplane being shot down as we fly to a vacation destination, or when we send our kids off to school this fall we might fret over the possibility of another mass shooting. On top of all this, plenty of people today find themselves seriously fretting over finances, paying the mortgage, job security. And then, of course, there are those problems that just pop up in everyday life, like when the lights on the side of your house go out or your ice maker stops making ice.

Some of these problems do indeed have solutions or at least partial solutions -- we can call a repair person when the appliance breaks, invest money wisely, install security measures to ensure safety in schools or in airports. But we can never "control" any of it.  I suppose a bomb could go off in the mall when I am shopping, but then again I could be hit by a car when crossing the street. Stuff happens. 

In the end, "fretting" over any of it gets me nowhere. The only thing fretting gets me is a sore stomach, high blood pressure, a cloudy mind and a frightened spirit. Fretting eats away, gnaws at, and devours. 

Benedictine nun Macrima Weiderkehr advises adopting a spirit of "equanimity" as an antidote to "fretting:"

The dictionary will tell you that the word 'equanimity' means calm composure. But there is a far better definition: Equanimity is that stability of mind that allows us to be present with an open heart to everything that comes our way -- no matter how wonderful or how difficult.

I'm trading in my "fretting" for "equanimity." 

Oh, and by the way, our gardener stopped by yesterday and connected a loose wire. It took about a minute and all the lights outside my house are back on. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Discipline of Listening

"Silence at Sunset"

Some friends from Los Angeles were here visiting this weekend. As we sat chatting with one another, one of our visitors suddenly turned to me and said, "It sure is quiet out here."  In fact, that's probably one of the very first things most people notice when they come out to the desert, especially if they are used to all the noise of a big city - it sure is quiet out here, and it's especially quiet at this time of year when all the tourists have headed out of town to escape the triple digit summer heat. 

I have been doing some thinking about the silence of the desert. Interestingly enough, although I am literally immersed in silence every day, I find that I am now "listening" more carefully. While the desert is quiet there are still plenty of sounds - the sounds of nature,  the sounds of everyday living in the neighborhood. Somehow because everything is so quiet,  I find myself paying closer attention to these sounds of everyday life.

The other day I came across a very helpful article in the magazine Spirituality and Health in which the author reflected on the importance of "listening" as a spiritual discipline:

Early human beings learned to survive by listening -- by constantly scanning their environment for an awareness of all sounds. But the modern world has become so full of white noise, so polluted by meaningless sound that people have 'literally' changed the way they listen.

Instead of keeping our ears open to everything, we tune out the drone of a leaf blower or the noisy sound of passing traffic and instead zero in on the squeal of tires while approaching a crosswalk.  We only listen for what we think is important and we filter out what is unimportant before we even hear it, and so we don't make ourselves available to all the sounds that come to us in the present moment.  

The desert quiet has helped me pay more attention to "all" the available sounds, and I find that when I am able to do this I become more mindfully aware - paying attention to the sounds of the everyday moment I am pulled into the "now," that place where "life" really happens. 

Listening carefully is a spiritual discipline. 

But the truth is that you don't have to live in a quiet place like a desert to practice the spiritual discipline of listening. Anyone of us can take off the headphones and remove the earbuds and make ourselves available to the sounds of everyday life. Sitting alone and meditating doesn't mean that we block out all the sounds that come to us-the present moment speaks to us in those sounds.  Driving a car, walking to school, shopping in the market, running on a treadmill at the gym, we can listen to the sounds- to all the sounds. And when we do that we are practicing the discipline of listening.

It's another quiet morning as I sit alone in my mediation garden here in the desert. I pay attention to the wind chimes, to the sound of the garden fountain, the swoosh of the hummingbirds, the wind in the palm trees.  A door slams, a truck rumbles in the distance, my dog is running around, the air conditioning has just come on - all the beautiful sounds of living everyday.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Hidden Treasure

"Beauty in Unexpected Places"

Yesterday I had a wonderful opportunity to be interviewed for an upcoming documentary film now being produced. The director decided to interview me inside my house seated on a chair in a corner next to the fireplace.

As they began to set up for the interview, I watched with care and realized that the documentary folks didn't actually "change" anything at all of what was already there in the house. Instead they were looking at it in a new way - some backlighting to bring out the lush green color of a nearby houseplant, positioning the angle of the chair so that the perfect amount of natural light would fall upon it,  paying attention to a picture on the wall behind the chair so it would serve as a beautiful backdrop.  After about an hour of extremely meticulous setup, that chair on which I sit every day in the little corner of my house was transformed into a magnificent "movie set." 

In the interview yesterday as we were talking about finding beauty and poetry in the most unexpected and ordinary places in life, I realized that this is exactly what these very creative guys had done in my house. They looked at a little ordinary corner of it and saw something extraordinary there. I will never again sit in that corner without seeing how beautiful it is.

Ive been thinking about something Michelangelo was purported to have said about his art:

In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me,
shaped and perfect in attitude and action.
I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition
to reveal it to other eyes as mine to see it.

I think maybe the whole world of ordinary everyday life is like a block of marble teeming with beauty,  a hidden treasure to be explored and uncovered, and you don't have to be a celebrated artist like Michelangelo to see the beauty within. In fact when any single one of us pays close enough attention, we will be able to uncover the most extraordinary beauty in the most ordinary and perhaps unexpected places in life.

Before moving out to the desert we had several occasions to drive through this region. As I would drive my car along the Interstate Highway, passing through the sandy desert valley with its barren stoney mountains, I used to think to myself, "Why on earth would anyone want to live out here in such a desolate place?" Now that I actually live here I can't imagine wanting to live anywhere else.

When I clear my mind, open my heart, stay awake in the moment, and "pay attention" to this apparently barren desert, I almost always uncover a world of incredibly lush beauty. I discover cacti that bloom in an array of stunning colors such as I have never before seen anywhere else in my life. I see tender wildflowers peppering the desert floor, sage bushes and exotic smoke trees, mountains that seem so barren suddenly turning to gold as they glow in the sunset and turning purple as the sun rises at the break of day- all so excruciatingly beautiful, sometimes it's hard to take it all in.  

The whole world is a block of marble. In every single corner of every ordinary house, in every single place our feet might step, in every single person we meet every single day, there is "beauty" to be uncovered, hidden treasure to be explored. 

As I sit in my desert garden on this glorious August day, I am paying attention to it all.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Highly Favored

-At The Desert Retreat House-

There is a sign outside our local supermarket that reads, "no solicitation allowed," but that never stops some local "Christian" groups from setting up a table and asking for donations to support their various ministries like homeless shelters or food banks. I usually stop and make a small contribution for these "good causes." 

Yesterday, as I left the store I stopped and casually asked the energetic young woman sitting at the donation table  how she was doing? With a big bright smile she enthusiastically announced that she was "highly favored." I responded with an equally enthusiastic, "Great, and aren't we all highly favored?" Her bright smile immediately faded to a frown and she became very serious. "Well, people who don't obey God's law as it is spelled out in the Bible are surely not highly favored."  

I decided not to get into a heated theological debate on the sidewalk in front of a local supermarket,  so I simply responded,  "When I read Bible teachings, especially the teachings of Jesus, what is 'spelled out'  for me is that I should 'respect the dignity of every human being' -no exceptions."  She responded with a patronizing smile and dismissed me as the next person approached to make a contribution.    

I have been thinking about my one-minute interaction at the supermarket yesterday. That phrase "highly favored" has stuck with me, leaving me with a bitter taste.  In fact the more I have thought about it-- the belief that one group is more "highly favored" than another lies at the very core of religious conflict and probably at the very core of all conflict in general. 

Growing up as a boy in the Roman Catholic Church we were taught that we were far superior to Protestants - Jews and Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus never even got an "honorable mention." And, of course, like that young lady outside the supermarket yesterday, to this very day there are still plenty of evangelical, born-again "Protestants" who believe they are more highly-favored than catholics and certainly better than those "godless" liberal Episcopalians. 

Then I think about the many orthodox Jews in Israel today who believe that they are the "Chosen People." God has favored them with the gift of their homeland and they have a moral obligation to cleanse it of Arab interlopers. In turn, many Muslim Arabs believe they are the ones who have it right - far more highly favored than their neighbors, and so the land belongs to them.  And on top of all that, even among fellow Muslims, the Sunnis claim they are far more highly-favored than their Shia counterparts; and you better believe that because if you don't, you might just get yourself executed.

I told that energetic young woman yesterday that I also read the Bible and follow the "way" of Jesus, and when I do,  I find no room for "highly favored" thinking." If anything, Jesus showed favor to those who were pushed out to the margins - the poor, the weak, the outcast, sinners and breakers of the law, pagans and non-believers from distant lands. He set a place of equal dignity for everyone to sit at the table of human existence.

In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, a person about to be baptized is asked this question:

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people,
and respect the dignity of every human being?

As I see it, this is not just a question for potential "Christians," it is a question that could be asked of everyone -  religious people and non-religious people, believers and non believes, atheists and agnostics, the entire human family. 

 And when the answer to this question is a resounding "Yes," the world becomes a better place. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Be Gentle and Be Kind

'Simply Beautiful"
-in my meditation garden-

The other day I learned of the death of a former parishioner of mine- he was 101 years old.  When I called his widow to express my condolences I told her that, for me, her husband was the essence of what it means to be a true "gentleman,"  -- he was indeed a "gentle" man.

Although his body had been failing in his later years, he had a clear mind and big heart right up until the day he died.  I had great affection and respect for this man not because he had managed to live so long, but because he was always so kind while he did live - kind not just to me but to everyone who came into his life.  

He always had something good to say about people - never an axe to grind, never playing the angles or hiding behind a hidden agenda. I had plenty of interactions with him and I honestly never saw him in a cranky mood. I also never heard him make demands because he had lived so long and therefore deserved to be treated better or listened to more. 

From time to time I would receive a little poem or witty limerick from him in my mailbox - some lighthearted thought he would send on to me especially if he thought I looked tired or was weary. He did a lot  to "brighten up the day" for lots of people - little acts of kindness that made enormous differences.

This morning I have been thinking of my old friend who had lived to be 101.  Wisdom does not necessarily come with age. I have known plenty of older people who were anything but wise in their old age.  But my friend who just died was truly a wise man,  who over his 101 years had come to discover one, simple, essential wisdom about living a meaningful life - it all boils down to this:

Be Gentle and Be Kind

Any chef will tell you that there is no more delicious sauce than one that has been "reduced" - all the ingredients, butter, herbs, wine, broth all boiled down to achieve maximum flavor.  I think maybe the same is true about life and learning how to live wisely. 

As I see it, you can take all the many commandments, all the books of laws, all the doctrine, all the dogma and all the thousands of tomes of theological discourse from all the many different religions and spiritual traditions, and you can put them in a pot and boil them all down to a deliciously simple but hardly simplistic wisdom:  If you want to find deeper peace in living everyday: 

 Be Gentle and be Kind

I have a ways to go before I get to be 101, but in the later years of my own life I hope I can learn from the example of a life well-lived as shown to me by my friend who just died.  People really loved this man not because he was so smart (although he was), not because he was so popular and so influential (although he was that), they loved him because he was gentle; they loved him because he was kind.  I hope that I can be the same. I hope we all can.

The Dalai Lama once said:

My religion is very simple.
My religion is kindness.

That's my religion too. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

No Birth No Death

-In the Hight Desert-

I find great truth in the Buddhist teaching that there is "no birth and no death." The thing is that this concept is so foreign to a traditional "Western" mindset that it's sometimes very difficult to talk about or explain. I guess that's why I was so struck by something I came across yesterday in Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh's few-sentence, simple illustration of "no birth, no death."  Suddenly this profound concept came alive for me and made perfect sense:

Look at this piece of paper. It didn't come from nothing because from nothing you can't suddenly become something. Looking deeply into the sheet of paper, we can see the trees, the soil, sun, rain, and cloud that nourished the trees, the lumberjack, and the paper mill. This is where the sheet of paper comes from. Taking the form of a sheet of paper is only a new manifestation, not a birth.

And, it's impossible for the sheet of paper to die. When you burn a sheet of paper it turns into smoke vapor ash and heat, it continues in other forms

So the nature of the sheet of paper is "no birth and no death."

I was formed and fashioned in a classic "Western," dualistic, categorical, mechanistic worldview. I thought of myself as a separated entity apart from the world out there apart from me. There was "me" down here and "God" up there.  There was "me" and there were "others" who were apart from me. There was "me" and there were "things" out there. There was a beginning and there was an end to everything that exists,  "a place for everything and everything in it's place." 

The world of "God," the world of other people, the world of nature and things - all very nice and neat and orderly, all explainable and all quite controllable. 

I actually don't believe any of that any longer. 

In my later years of life, all my easy answers and glib explanations have shattered around me and I have come to understand that the world is a wonderful mystery in which I participate, and not a mechanism that I can control or explain. 

This morning, I once again sit in my desert garden basking in the warmth of the rising sun, listening to the sounds of life pulsating all around me, and I am awed by the great mystery of existence. 

As I sit here I think about Master Hanh's "sheet of paper" and realize that I am like that sheet of paper in his illustration.  I am not some separated entity born on a day in November.  On that November day "I" emerged from the sea of life, and everything and everyone who ever existed before me  now flows through me.  I was not born on that day, I became a new manifestation of life on that day. 

I belong to everything and everyone that ever was, is now or ever will be.

I also know that there is no death, for one day I will return back to that ocean of life from which I once emerged on that November day, and the name of that sea of life is "God."  

It's all such a wonderful, beautiful, awesome, uncontrollable, unexplainable mystery. There is no birth and there is no death, there is only "now."

Surrendering to the "now" I find that peace which passes all understanding. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Lighthearted Spirituality

"Cool Refreshment in the Heat"

On his way home after his recent trip to Korea, Pope Francis conducted an informal news conference with reporters on the plane returning to Rome. I was particularly struck by the way one newspaper characterized what the pope had to say:

Talking to reporters, Pope Francis lightheartedly gave himself two or three more years left to live but he didn't rule out retiring before that time. 

I found a statement like this coming from a pope to be remarkably refreshing, and I especially enjoyed  the way the pope's remarks were described as being "lighthearted."  After all, if anyone would want to cling onto life it would be a pope, the "supreme pontiff," a man of enormous power who literally "rules" over the spiritual lives of more than a billion people.  One might expect that the pope would want to protect and hold onto all this for as long as he possibly could. But on board that plane he "lightheartedly" said that he would probably be dead in a few years or maybe he might retire, who knows? 

As I see it, "lightheartedness" is at the very core of any spiritual journey.

The Buddha taught that "clinging and craving" were primary causes of our suffering in this world. Life is "impermanent." When you devote yourself to clinging to, clutching onto and protecting that which is fleeting and "impermanent," you will inevitably be disappointed and frustrated. And when you spend your days always in pursuit of something more, bigger, better -- more money, more prestige, more power,  you will never find a deeper peace.  

Jesus taught something very similar when he told his disciples:

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink
or about your body, what you will wear.
See how the flowers of the field grow. 
They do not labor or spin yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his glory
was not clothed like one of these.
So do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself.

Several years ago I attended the ordination of a friend of mine who was being "elevated" to the role of a bishop of the church. The congregation was filled with dignitaries - men and women of high and noble rank, bishops all bedecked in purple robes, priests in flowing garments, all sitting in a designated place of honor in the church.  It was a very solemn occasion and serous business was being conducted. 

I clearly remember the sermon from that ordination ceremony.The preacher looked out over that solemn assembly and then he looked directly at my friend who was being consecrated as a bishop and said, "I only have one piece of advice for you,  but if you listen to me you will be a lot happier in your life as a bishop:  Don't take yourself too seriously! Wear your vestments lightly!"

I have never forgotten that one line of advice. It may in fact be the motto for any one who walks on any spiritual path, whether they wear vestments or not.  We are all called to wear our gamments lightly as we walk along the wilderness path of life - all of us called to travel simply, without clinging to anything  or craving for more in this ever-so-brief time in this impermanent world. 

Regardless of how old or how young any of us are, in the larger scope of things, each of us can say that we have only a "few more years left before we die and maybe we will retire before then, who knows?" 

Don't take yourself too seriously! Wear your vestments lightly!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Sure and Certain Hope

-At the Desert Retreat House-

When I get up every morning I am usually greeted by the brilliant sun rising over the eastern mountains, crystal clear blue skies, a desert landscape that extends as far as the eye can see; but it wasn't like that yesterday as an unexpected sandstorm whipped up into the region and stayed with us for most of the day.  All day long all I could see were dark clouds of misty sand covering the sun and obscuring the blue skies and the majestic mountains. 

As the day progressed I realized how much those heavy, gloomy clouds of sand were affecting my mood. I was used to living in a space of wide, expansive beauty but now it was as if I had been lowered into some type of pit - no way out, smothering.  

Then in a flash of insight I realized that, even though I couldn't see it, I knew for certain that all the beauty and expansive freedom was still there - it was only temporarily blocked from my view. It came to me that this is exactly what having "hope" is all about.

I have stood in many cemeteries and presided over many funerals in my life. Standing at the grave, I have pronounced that in the face of death we have "sure and certain hope." It was always a very powerful experience for me to stand in the midst of clouds of great sorrow and proclaim that message of hope--not just  "hope," but "sure and certain" hope.  

I have often been asked how "hope" can be "sure and certain" - that's because most people think of hope as some sort of "wishful thinking," - "I hope I get the job, I hope I might win the lottery, I hope it doesn't rain on the day of the picnic."

However, genuine hope is never just "wishful thinking;" genuine hope is always "sure and certain." We may not be able to see the beauty because it is covered by a veil of dark heavy clouds; but when we are "sure and certain" that the beauty is there, we have "hope."

In his book, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh wisely observes:

Our greatest fear is that when we die we will become nothing.

Death looks so final. When the physical body dies it looks like there is nothing left. In his book, Master Hanh observes that nothing that "is" ever becomes "no-being." He goes on to use the example of a cloud that disappears in the sky. When that happens the cloud hasn't become "nothing," it is not annihilated but rather transformed into mist rising up into the atmosphere and returned to the rivers and the oceans. The lesson nature teaches is that once something "is" it never turns into "nothing." 

And so I can stand at a grave, look at death in the eye and be sure and certain that death is not a doorway into nothingness. At my death I can be sure and certain that I will be transformed, returned to the ocean of "God" from which I first sprung up. I don't know how this all will happen or what it will be like but I know that the transformation will happen.  I know I will not become nothing. So I have hope- a sure and certain hope.

We often say that "courage" is the opposite of "fear," but I think maybe it's "hope." The opposite of "fear" is "hope," and if you aren't afraid of death what else is there to fear?

The sun is back out again today, blue skies, majestic mountains and open vistas have come back into view. My hope has been well-founded. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Good Wine and Cracked Bottles

"A New Day"
-At the Desert Retreat House-

Yesterday my wife and I went to the theater to see the newly released and high acclaimed movie, Calvary.  We thought we were going to see a film about the Catholic Church in Ireland - as it turned out the movie was far more than that. 

For hundreds of years Ireland was virtually "ruled" by an all-powerful established church. The church wielded enormous control over every aspect of daily life-spiritual as well as political. Over the years it  had become corrupt, bloated and abusive, culminating in the last decade of the widespread scandals of sexual abuse by its clergy. The people got to the point where they weren't going to tolerate it any longer and so today the once-powerful church in Ireland has been decimated - few people attend church any longer and the established religion has now become an object of derision in popular culture. 

The movie, Calvary, is a story about a priest and a church in small modern-day Irish village, and it packed a powerful and even haunting message for me. The people of the village had essentially lost their faith, they had lost hope, and they had become openly antagonistic toward the once-respected church that had stood at the center of their town and had been the focus of their lives. 

In the movie, it wasn't until the established church and all its trappings (included the clergy) was "crucified, died and buried" that the seeds of faith hope and love were able to be planted once again in the hearts of those lost people in that small Irish village. For faith to be born again, the church didn't have to be changed, it had to be buried. 

As I watched this movie yesterday I realized that, for me, this wasn't just a story about an Irish village or even a story about Ireland. It was a story about "established religion," and it has haunted me ever since I saw it, raising many questions for me about the role of any church or synagogue or temple in contemporary society and popular culture. 

Every day I publish my blog post on various sites on the social media, and I never cease to be amazed at the strident, virulent and even violent reaction I often get if I even use the word "religion" or "church" in my postings. I keep running into so many people today (especially young people in Western culture) who are so openly antagonistic to any type of established religion that it never falls to stun me.  

I used to get very upset and sometimes angry when I would hear those online voices of derision about how bad religion is and how stupid it is to be believe fairytale myths about a man in the sky controlling the world. But now I wonder if these voices may not be the voices of prophets? I wonder if maybe these prophets are telling us that people today aren't hearing the core message of hope and compassion because religion is getting in the way?   

I have been a religious person all my life, and although I am now more at the fringes than at the center of the church, I am still "religious." Over  my career I have been involved in innumerable programs to pump new life into a dying institutional church - new music, a revised liturgy, contemporary vestments,  clever adverting, banners on the street inviting people to "come and see" us, and yet year by year the pews became emptier and emptier. I now begin to wonder if maybe those empty pews aren't a good thing in the long run. 

After seeing that haunting movie yesterday I ask myself if maybe the church and established religion with all its historical trappings isn't being called to a "calvary experience" - to be crucified and die if the seeds of faith, compassion, and hope are to be planted again in the hearts of people? 

Jesus told his disciples that new wine can't be put into old wineskins because the old wineskins will crack and the wine will be lost. There is a newer translation of this:

No one puts good wine into cracked bottles because the wine will be lost

Historically, religious institutions have been bottles for the message but if the bottle is cracked maybe it's time to look for a new bottle because what it contains is far too important to be lost. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Racial Division

"Blue Skies, Summer Days"

The issue of race has once again surfaced in our national psyche in the United States, as day after day we are immersed in those ugly images of white people confronting black people on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman has opened a "pandora's box" of seething racial tension - police officers (mostly white) riding in tanks and  looking more like soldiers pointing weapons at angry (mostly black) enraged protesters vowing to seek justice for the death of Michael Brown no matter what the cost.  

When I see the images and hear the stories out of Ferguson, Missouri -  a "State of Emergency," a midnight curfew, stores being looted, fire bombs hurled, it looks like Watts or Selma and I feel like I'm back in the 1960's once again.

The events in Missouri have sparked a great deal of national dialogue over the issue of "race," but interestingly enough the one thing I almost never hear mentioned is that, in essence,"race" is a myth, "race" doesn't even exist.  

In her newly published book, A Dreadful Deceit: the Myth of Race, award-winning History Professor, Jacqueline Jones, offers some very insightful commentary:

"Race" is an entirely spurious concept, "race" itself is a fiction, one that has no basis in biology or any long standing consistent usage in human culture.

The ubiquity of the term "race" in modern discourse indicates that early twenty-first century Americans adhere to this myth with remarkable tenacity. In fact it is a social fiction stemming from the era of America's national origins when the white elite concocted ideas of racial difference as a way to explain why a whole group of people were excluded from the body politic.

Today's cutting-edge DNA research has clearly established that "all" human beings are so genetically close that we are all "one" race. Furthermore today's molecular anthropologists have also demonstrated that no "race" or ethnic group is ever entirely "pure"- all human beings are complex mixtures of multiple historical cultures, tribes and peoples. 

"Race" is little more than an arbitrary classification imposed on a continuum of physical differences, and yet we continue to talk and act as if "race" actually exists; we continue to perpetuate the myth.  And so black people and white people, armed and ready, angrily confront one another on a city street when in fact they "are" one another.

As I see it, our problem with "race" in America is essentially a spiritual problem.  People perpetuate the "myth of race" because they believe in the "myth of ego" and act as if a separated isolated self actually exists when in fact it doesn't. 

The path of any spiritual journey points us to the wisdom that all of us are "interbeing."  We are a web of dynamic relationships and we all "belong" to one another as we make our way on the road of life. 

A Zen wisdom saying comes to mind:

The true person is not anyone in particular;
but like the deep blue color of the limitless sky,
the true person is everyone - everyone in the world.

There is no black and white among those folks on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Their color is "blue."  

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Sages, Buddhas, Gurus and Guides

"Beautiful Emptiness"
-Outside the Desert Retreat House-

Yesterday I watched some of the footage of the pope's current visit to South Korea and it gave me cause to reflect upon the role of popes and buddhas, teachers, sages and gurus on the spiritual path.  

I actually think Pope Francis is a rather humble man who doesn't takes himself too seriously; but as I watched yesterday's coverage of the Korean visit, I realized that in the eyes of the hundreds of thousands of fans who came out to greet him, the pope was a larger than life, "holy rock star." 

After all, a pope is someone who has made it to the top of the ladder of success. He has achieved top billing, and in Catholic theology he is Christ's personal representative on earth  - just one step lower than Jesus himself. 

I have no doubt that those thousands of people in the crowd in Seoul, Korea yesterday couldn't even imagine that they might be able to ever achieve what "His Holiness" has achieved in life,  and herein lies the crux of the problem because "holiness" isn't something anyone can ever "achieve."

The direction of a spiritual journey is actually rather simple. One finds enlightenment by surrendering,  by dying to a false sense of self, a narcissistic ego, a bloated sense of self importance. One finds true wisdom by coming to the point of saying "I don't know - I have no answers, life is a mystery."  

The spiritual journey is more about "doing nothing" rather than "doing something."

With an uncluttered mind and open heart, the Buddha "did nothing" but sit under a Bodhi tree for 40 days and he became enlightened.  Jesus "did nothing" but sit alone in the empty wildeness for  40 days and his emptiness was filled with Holy Presence.

So it is with any spiritual journey, the path teaches us to "do nothing"  -live mindfully in the present moment, open, alert, empty, available, so that our emptiness might be filled with Presence. 

As I see it, anyone who thinks they have "achieved wisdom" because of their hard work, years of study, or because of their many disciplined spiritual practices is probably not all that wise at all. 

I am reminded of something Alan Watts once said:

I have always found that people who have quite genuinely died to their old false self make no claims of any kind about their own part in the process. They think of themselves as lazy and lucky, and if they did anything at all, it was so simple that anyone else could do the same,  for all they have dome was recognize a universal truth of life.  

To the genuine sage, mystic, buddha, enlightened one, the notion that he or she attained this state by some effort or by some special capacity of their own is always absurd and impossible.

There is a wonderful story about Abba Moses, a 4th century desert monk renowned for his holiness of life.  People from the neighboring cities would make special trips out to the desert to seek him out and learn from his wisdom. 

One day a city official came out to the desert looking for Abba Moses. Happening upon an old man sitting on a rock, the magistrate asked him where he might find the renowned holy man, Abba Moses?The old man on the rock told him, "Don't waste your time, Abba Moses is a fraud and knows nothing. He's none of the things people say he is." 

The magistrate marched back to the city eager to tell others about what he had learned, eager to despoil the reputation of this alleged saint.   Someone then asked the magistrate if the old man sitting on that rock in the desert to whom he had spoken happened to be a tall black man? "Well yes, he was," replied the magistrate.  "Ah" the person said, "that was Abba Moses himself on that rock. You met the saint at his best."

Abba Moses was a true sage, a buddha,  a guru and a guide. 


Friday, August 15, 2014

Morally Responsible

"Belonging Together"
-At the Desert Retreat House-

Yesterday I listened to a very heartwarming and encouraging interview with an American physician who is donating his time treating ebola patients in West Africa. When asked why he was putting himself into "harm's way" by exposing himself to this incurable disease, the doctor replied that it was his "privilege" to be able to help those people. He went on to say "That's what doctors are supposed to do, we are supposed to heal the sick, that's our job." The doctor concluded the interview by asking, " Aren't we all responsible for taking care of one another?"

When  I heard this response I started talking to the radio in my car, "Yes, indeed" I said, "That's it exactly; we are all responsible for taking care of one another." I also know many people who would totally disagree with me on this.

I remember a recent "online" conversation I had with someone who took great exception to a phrase I used in a blog response when I made the claim that we are all "morally responsible" for one another. That phrase, "morally responsible" really pushed this guy's buttons, "The only one I am responsible for is myself," he argued. Then he went on to say that I was just propagandizing, pushing my own "religious" point of view on him. My guess is that many people today might hold a similar position to that of my online friend. 

Western culture had been infected with a spirit of "rugged individualism," - many people believe that their only responsibility is to themselves or to a small circle of friends. When that word "morality" pops up, it creates an atmosphere of defensiveness, especially in a time when more and more people have disassociated themselves from religious systems, and even some "religious" folks get uncomfortable with talk about "morality," feeling guilty because they believe that can never live up to the strict moral precepts of their religion.

The Dalai Lama teaches:

What we need today is an approach to morality and ethics which makes 
no recourse to religion and can be equally acceptable to those with faith and to those without.

I very much agree with this wisdom.  

Conversations about our responsibilities to one another will need to move "beyond religion" if we are ever to have any fruitful dialogue with one another in this secular age. Every human being has a "moral responsibility" to care for one another, not because of the demand of any given "religion" but because of the nature of our shared human condition.

You certainly don't have to be a theologian or a religious "believer"  to believe and to understand that we are all a "cosmic web of dynamic interrelationship." The scientists of our own day, biologists, neuroscientists, quantum physicists are all uncovering a "brave new world of cosmic interconnectivity" in which every atom and ever quark in the entire universe is somehow intertwined, fueled by a cosmic energy.

We are responsible for one another because we "are" one another, we belong to one another- and not just to other human beings, we belong to the universe.  

We all have an ethical duty to be concerned for the well being of other human beings, a responsibility to do whatever we can to help those who suffer or are in need wherever they may be.  As human beings we have a moral responsibly to care for all creatures great and small, the birds of the air and the fish in the sea. We are all morally responsible for caring for this planet on which we live, to keep the air clean and prevent the oceans from being polluted.  

Everything and everyone belong together- we are all responsible for it all.  


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ask Big Questions

-Outside the Desert Retreat House-

The other day I came across an article in the New York Times about a new initiative sweeping across college campuses all over the country.  Students from many different disciplines and backgrounds meet together in a public forum where they are invited to engage in dialogue to help deepen their understanding of themselves, other students and the world in general. 

In this new program called, "Ask Big Questions," students are invited to go deeper, exploring questions ike: 

For whom are we responsible?
What do we choose to ignore?
Where do you feel at home?
How does technology change us?
When do you conform and when do you take a stand?

Colleges and Universities across the country have reported that this program has been a great success and is catching on everywhere, suggesting that it has not only helped students grow into a deeper wisdom, but it has also given them a greater sense of empathy and solidarity with one another as they learn that all of us share in a common human condition.  

When I read the article the over day, I was also struck by the further observation that, other than these public meetings, there are no other places for students today to explore those deeper questions - it's kind of frightening to me.

Churches, temples, religious institutions are often places where the bigger questions are raised and probed in sermons or classes or discussion groups - but by and large college students and people in that generation don't go to church anymore, many have no religious affiliation whatsoever.  So religion is not an available venue for many students today to "ask the big questions," and to go deeper.   

In the past there was a much heavier emphasis on the study of the humanities in academic life, and when you take courses in art or music or literature, the "big questions" often surface and are explored; but the majority of today's college students major in business, economics, marketing and computer science. Courses in the humanities are less emphasized and often pushed to the background of academic life today.

So I guess it's probably true that unless there is a specially designed extracurricular forum for discussion and dialogue, those big, wisdom-inducing questions are often left untouched by a lot of students nowadays.

The problem is that many people today, not just college students, leave the "big questions" unexplored, and I think this may be part of the malaise and chaos that seems to have taken hold of popular culture in our own times.

The everyday questions asked by many people in everyday life are often pretty "small" and "self-centered" - questions about making money, getting the stuff you want, how to climb up the ladder of success. People rarely have opportunities to sit down and explore any deeper wisdom about the meaning of life, encountering transcendence, our connection to one another, social responsibilities, caring for those who are at the fringes of life.  

I see people everywhere just sort of skimming the surface rather than probing the depths; and when you only skim the surface of life with nothing to serve as an anchor, it's easy to slip into chaos. 

Maybe this is why I continue every day to write this little post on my blog. My little post is my way of asking big questions.